Liberia's right to seize US ships

Liberia is the largest shipping country in history; its flag flies over more than one quarter of the world' shipping tonnage. Almost all of its vessels are owned by foreigners, about half by Americans.

Liberia has the right -- under international maritime law -- to requisition each and every oen of its ships. If this step is taken, the United States will be thrust into an imperialist-colonial type controversy the like of which we have not seen since Mexico's 1938 decision to nationalize its oil.

Liberia has been a "flag of convenience" haven for the oil industry for 30 years. Its shipping and corporation laws, authored and administered by Americans, allow the tanker owners of Western nations to avoid the taxes, labor costs, and pollution-control regulations they would otherwise face. Liberia has been satisfied with its role for three decades: Why change now?

Liberia's young government, headed by 28-year-old Master Sergeant Samuel K. Doe, has already proven itself oblivious to world opinion. It has executed publicly without trial the largely innocent leaders and camp followers of the country's past; it has entered into discussions with the dictator of Libya, Colonel Qaddafi; it is a government with little claim to legitimacy beyond that provided by force; it is unpredictable in its policies, and obscure in political philosophy.

In 1948 America created Liberia's shipping statutes in order to silence oil-industry complaints about high labor costs, while supposedly preserving effective US control over American-owned tankers for times of war or national emergency. Liberia was the perfect client state, in an era when we still had client states. It was ruled by the descendants of American slaves; it contained the last remnant of the American Whig Party; its only two ports were named after US Presidents Monroe and Buchanan; it was described by an oil company official as "the godson of the United States." Until the coup this spring, its government had been stable for 133 years.

But the time of client states is past. Liberia garners little from the current flag-of-convenience arrangement. Its $11 million income from ship registration wouldn't even purchase the cargo of a single oil tanker. The leaders of the UN Conference on Trade and Development have called for an end to flag-of-convenience operations, arguing that ships must be owned by nationals of the flag they fly, and that developing countries deserve a far greater share of oil tanker ownership. For at least 20 years, Liberia has publicly claimed the right to requisition its flagships. The US has never disputed this right; instead we have assumed it would not be exercised.

But requisition would clearly be legal. It would accord with current thinking about flag-of-convenience shipping in the third world. It would almost certainly have nationalist appeal within Liberia, thus strengthening the new government. And it would put Liberia in an excellent position to bargain for a new and far more favorable modus vivendi with the oil industry.

What could the US do in response? We designed Liberia's shipping laws, and voluntarily put our vessels under Liberia's control. We have been the single strongest advocate of flag-state maritime rights in world shipping circles. Under the law, we could not reassert control or place our flag over US-owned Liberian ships without the permission of Liberia. We would have the right to seek compensation, but could not legally use force to block the Liberian initiative. If we did use force, we would be shattering international law and risking massive diplomatic damage in our relations with the theird world.

It is argued that Liberia would be unable to enforce a nationalization decree. The captains of Liberia's flag vessels, however, would be legally obliged to obey -- at the risk of their licenses and careers -- any law of their flag state. Seven years ago Liberia successfully prohibited its ships from supplying oil to Israel during the Yom Kippur war. Liberia would have the right to ask enforcement assistance from any coastal country having a Liberian ship in its territorial waters, and could even -- if it so chose -- deputize the Soviet Navy to enforce its statutes on the high seas.

Are these scenarios farfetched? Perhaps. But the US has been victimized by much stranger occurrences in recent years. Liberia has some potent economic and political reasons to consider requisitioning its fleet, and it has enormous legal flexibility in this regard. The US has never protected its right to US-owned Liberian ships by treaty or any other means, and, as a result, we are now extremely vulnerable.

American-owned oil tankers are a vital economic and military resource, which we cannot afford to lose. And yet we, unlike the Soviet Union or any other significant world power, have seen fit -- in serving the short-term financial interests of our own oil industry -- to grant control of this resource to a third party; a party now undergoing the shock of revolutionary change. f our tankers soon become someone else's tankers, if the flag-of-convenience scheme boomerangs like so many other penny wise-pound foolish plans have done in the past, we will have to blame only the arrogance and complacency -- unaltered for 30 years in an otherwise volatile world -- of the US government. m

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